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2009-03-24

The future of sailing is staying tied to the dock



A wise fellow on a very good sailing forum I frequent mused upon the future of recreational sailing thusly "And so as I thought about this discussion, and the state of the world economy, I began to wonder if sailing is doomed to continue to decline as living standard expectations add so much to the cost of a boat that it prices more and more of the population out of the marketplace? Or will the next generation of young family sailors be willing to keep it simple, and take advantage of technology improvements that allows better boats than we ever had 50-60 years ago to be produced at comparatively affordable prices?"

I think perhaps not.

The context of the question was a gathering in which various production boat designers were floating the idea of a Folkboat for the 21 century. The Folkboat, for the unfamiliar, was a small (25 foot), Swedish boat of World War II vintage motivated by the same ethos that built the Volkswagen in Germany: make it cheap enough and simple enough...but fun enough and safe enough...to get people into sailing. While they are still being built today in wood and plastic (there's a nice one across from me at my club, in fact), they are pretty Spartan, two-bunk affairs that have all the amenities of a 1950s assault on Everest, which is to say a bucket for sanitation and a gimballed butane burner for stew.

So if you built a smallish, simple boat today that incorporated modern rigging and hull forms, sailed fast but was conservative in terms of seakindliness and could take heavy weather...a sort of Super Shark...would people line up for it if it cost fifty grand?

Probably not. People love their gear, and you can't fit the means to create gear's electricity needs on a sub-30 footer easily. You also can't fit an inboard engine so well, and an outboard in a well is going to seem somehow declasse to the prospective boat buyer, who will want to turn a key and start moving.

Cynical sounding? Consider camping. Camping used to mean hauling about 30 pounds of gear low on your back and hiking 20-30 miles out from the nearest road using a compass, woodcraft and a canvas pup tent. You would cut the poles at the site.

Now it involves putting up a "dining tent" next to an SUV and trying to get the Honda genset far enough away not to hear it while it powers your Koolatron and the kids' videogames or DVD player.

Back with sailing, I believe that the desire to replicate shore life aboard a production cruiser, with the emphasis on electrical appliances and conveniences, has to do with the increasingly meagre skill set of the modern urban dweller. It's not a matter of being unable to splice, hand and helm...a lot of people today break into hives going beyond cell phone range.

I took OUT a lot of the aged plumbing on Valiente, my '73 boat, because a barbeque with a 1 lb gas bottle on the rail and a campstove in the cockpit trumped a funky alcohol stove in the galley...and weighed less. The head works, but you wash your hands in a sink filled from a bucket, and you drink from a container or a square bag. Big deal. We daysail that boat, and if we cruise, we can pull in to a dock anytime I think I've got too much money on my person.

I'm keeping it simple on Alchemy, our bigger, newer boat as well. We'll have refrigeration, but just about everything else save a couple of big bilge pumps will be muscle-driven, including a big backup bilge pump. We'll have LED lighting, RADAR and pretty sophisticated chartplotting and systems monitoring, but also oil lamps for drying out the boat and (as we know from sailing in Toronto) taking the chill out of the air. Also, the systems being monitored will be deliberately simple and will rely more on math and "dipstick backup" than sassy glowing displays. Again, not so much a Luddite impulse as the certain knowledge that stuff breaks at sea, and the less time I have to spend scraping and soldering when I have a manual or common-sense option, the happier I will be. I will inevitably be doing this stuff anyway, but I don't need the helm to look like the deck of a spaceship in order to know we are sailing.

I think my attitude stems from this belief: The key to replicating one's shore life aboard is to live a simple life on land. Then the transition to "the cruising lifestyle" isn't as jarring, and the opportunity to learn other skills (I'm still a crappy splicer, but they stay put!) is enhanced. In our urban house, we just don't own a lot of appliances, A/C, "entertainment centres", and so on. Part of that is because I don't choose to spend money on annoying, poorly made crap, but the other part is that we had better be a bookish, handy and skilled family at sea, because "movie night" aboard is going to be a treat, not a nightly occurrence. So I spend time checking out the latest digital radars and manual coffee grinders from Lehman's (http://www.lehmans.com/), the place the Amish get their kitchen gadgets and a wide range of stuff that doesn't need batteries.

I don't see a lot of people willing to disconnect from their gadget-crammed modern life (which I can understand has its attractions) to reconnect with something like the sound of a five-degrees heeled boat in 11 knots of wind chuckling its way through the water. A lot of young people today are confused and bored by the natural world, having never grown to appreciate it.

Go to Niagara Falls, or the Grand Canyon, or some other "beauty spot". What do you see? Hordes of people staring at the "attraction" through the two-inch viewscreen of a digital camera or a camphone.

People want mediated experience. Sailing is very direct. Once underway, you can't easily switch it off and go play with your XBox. I am not sure today's youth has the attention span for it....

...which is precisely why I am taking my son to sea for five years. Come hell or high water, after standing a few hundred watches, he'll have the concentration of a Zen monk, which should stand him in good stead as he comes to manhood in a world full of scatterbrained stimulus junkies. I don't think that a Luddite impulse so much as a critical assessment that certain trends in our society are not entirely positive, and that an alternative upbringing, one which exposes a child to different, more self-reliant ways of living have merit and are worth the work my wife and I are making.

I nearly wrote "worth the sacrifice", but who am I kidding? What will we miss? The opportunity not to get raises for the next 10 years?

1 comment:

the captain said...

I think buying any boat brand new is so costly that anyone on a budget is automatically out. We low-tech, small boat owning, low electronic frills family boaters are out there, we're just not in the market for a 50k boat, regardless of the hull shape. Lots of old boats with many years left on them to satisfy us, let the workaholics who need to bring everything with them buy the new shit. It's not too hard to tell who is a showoff and who is a real sailor. Good luck with the remodel, looking forward to seeing some pics. -soulesailor